Attack on Pearl Harbor - Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions, Alan D. Zimm

Attack on Pearl Harbor - Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions, Alan D. Zimm

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is often described as having been brilliantly planned and executed, a masterful attack carried out by experienced aviators. Here the author examines every aspect of the plan and the attack to see if those claims are true, and if not how the Japanese achieved their dramatic successes. The plan is judged not against modern standards, but against the experience and doctrines available to the Japanese planners at the time.

Zimm finds plenty to criticize (on both sides). The Japanese were guilty of bad target selection, had no plan for how to deal with an alerted enemy until the day before the attack, carried out unrealistic training that failed to reveal problems with their attack plan, problems that greatly extended the time they ended up staying over the target. The problems continued into the post-attack reporting, where an exaggerated number of hits were reported (although the claims for ships sunk were more realistic).

Zimm also looks at several myths that have built up around the attack. These include the idea that the Japanese aviators had a great deal of combat experience gained in China, when it was actually Army crews who carried out most of the fighting in that theatre. The idea that a third wave of attacks might have damaged the naval base beyond immediate repair is examined and convincingly refuted, as is the idea that the fifth of five midget submarines managed to get into the harbour.

He does sometimes overplay his hand a little - perhaps most obviously in the case of USS Nevada, where he states that the Japanese were mistaken to attack it with dive bombers because there was zero change of that weapon sinking the battleship. The only problem with this argument is that the bombs from the dive bombers did actually directly contribute to the sinking of the Nevada. There may have been a lot of luck involved in that success, but the same could be said about many military actions. Zimm's arguments are mainly very convincing, supported by plenty of evidence, but a little more modesty would have helped - starting with conclusion with the statement that 'a summary reveals the breadth and depth of these new revelations' rather jars!

Zimm also looks at the flaws on the American side. If the Japanese had attacked in late November, as they had originally planned, they would have found a fleet on high alert. Remarkably, having received a war warming, the senior US commanders on the island seem to have decided to give their men one last weekend off, reducing the alert status. The Japanese were also lucky that two advance warnings were either missed or not acted upon - one of their midget submarines was sunk just outside the harbour entrance before the attack and the incoming bombers were detected by an isolated radar station, but the air control room was unmanned. If either of these warnings had been acted upon, then the Japanese aircraft would have faced a fully alerted US fleet and the attack would probably have been a lot less successful. Zimm makes a very good case for saying that the Japanese got very lucky at Pearl Harbor!

He also looks at the overall Japanese strategy behind the attack, and again finds it flawed (this part of the argument is more generally accepted, but he does state the case well). The Japanese plan was to fight a decisive battle close to Japanese home waters, ideally while the US fleet was attempting to rescue the Philippines. This meant that they didn't need to put much effort into long range logistics, and the aim was to inflict a heavy defeat that would force the Americans to the negotiating table. By attacking Pearl Harbor they acted against this plan in two ways - first, the attack moved the battlefield further east, meaning that the Japanese fleet was operating on very narrow margins and without the expected aid of land bombers. The same problem would occur at Midway. Second, even if a Japanese declaration of war had arrived at the same time as the attack that wouldn't have reduced the anger in the United States. Any successful attack on Pearl Harbor would inevitably had created the mood of determination that ended any change of a negotiated end to the war.

This is a very impressive contribution to the literature on Pearl Harbor. Zimm makes a very convincing argument for his view that the Japanese plan was flawed in many ways, but was saved by a combination of luck and the skill of the crews of the few torpedo bombers that actually hit important targets.

1 - Strategic and Operational Setting
2 - Targets, Weapons and Weapon-Target Pairings
3 - Wargames
4 - Planning the Attack
5 - Pre-Attack: Training, Rehearsals, Briefings and Contingency Planning
6 - Execution of the Attack
7 - Assessment of the Attack
8 - Battle Damage Assessment
9 - What Might Have Been: Alerted Pearl Harbor Defenses
10 - Assessing the Folklore
11 - The Fifth Midget Submarine: A Cautionary Tail
12 - Reassessing the Participants
13 - Summary and Conclusions

A - Tabulation of Second-Wave Dive-Bomber Attacks
B - Abbreviations, Acronyms and Japanese Terms
C - Ships in Pearl Harbor and Vicinity
D - The Perfect Attack
E - Acknowledgements

Author: Alan D. Zimm
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 464
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2013 edition of 2011 original

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